The Big Idea: Tobias Buckell

The Cover to The Tangled Lands

In their new novel The Tangled Lands, Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell posit a world where magic is real — and exacts a toll, one different from what one might usually expect. Buckell is here today to expand and expound on that toll, and the parallels that toll has in our real world.


What if magic had a price? That isn’t a new idea in fantasy, or even in old stories. There is often a personal price paid for magic, whether it is Ariel dancing on legs that stab her like knives in the original Little Mermaid, exhaustion from casting a spell, or even needing to grind to find all the ingredients like herbs, experience, or spells in a video game in order to cast magic.

But what if magic had a price we all paid?

My latest book is a collaboration with Paolo Bacigalupi called The Tangled Lands. I remember that the moment we lit upon the idea of the bramble (the thorns of which can send you into an eternal deep sleep) and we realized that it would grow as a side effect of magic use, the entire world opened quickly up for us. Everything in the stories we began to write circled around this core struggle: how do people and society deal with the tragedy of the commons?

In The Tangled Lands, whenever magic is cast, there is a side effect: bramble appears. But it doesn’t just appear near where you cast it. It appears somewhere else, randomly,  a while later. It’s just a little, but it grows once it takes root. And it doesn’t take much to be dangerous.

How do you stop people from using it? Do you tell the mother of a child coughing blood she can’t use magic to heal him? Do you tell a mage not to use magic against an attacker?

And then a shopkeeper sweeping up after a long day brushes up against a crevice in a wall, and falls to the ground in a coma. Their son has to burn the bramble out of the walls carefully, then grieve over a parent stuck between life and death.

Who is at fault? How do folks prevent it from happening again? Because everyone has a reason to use magic. Just little charms, here or there. And over time… empires can fall under the choking grip of bramble.

There’s a horror to the almost creeping inevitability of society letting this slow-moving collapse consume us all… so it was intense to create a magical world dealing with the tragedy of the commons because it is a major issue we have faced before and will face over and over again. Whether it is overfishing, clear-cutting, or pollution, society has really struggled with this. But the moment you try to talk about a specific modern concern, people come to it with existing baggage. Examining the core idea without that baggage meant we had tremendous freedom in what stories we told.

Of course, chatting about crazy world building with another author and bouncing ideas off each other is the fun part. For me it’s always the honeymoon of a project like this. But when it comes time to write the book, you have to find a human story that engages.

We told stories about four people: an inventor trying to find a solution to some of these problems, but whose research is used in ways he never wanted, a mother seeking to rescue her children from re-education camps, a brother trying to care for bramble-kissed sister, and a blacksmith struggling to deal with the impact of inequality. But the truth is the story is really all about the land groaning under the weight of all the choices everyone makes on a daily basis about whether their own needs matter more.

I think, sometimes, when looking around at all the creeping inevitabilities heading toward us, we need to talk about them. Somehow. By using this fantasy world, I know I felt I could still tell the stories of individuals persevering against the massiveness of it all without also collapsing into a gibbering mess of despair myself because the real bramble was outside my window. Seeing these characters carry on no matter what, in some small way, gave me a little determination.


The Tangled Lands: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Buckell’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

15 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Tobias Buckell

  1. This sounds like an interesting Big Idea. But the reference to the so-called ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is a bit unfortunate. That phrase was coined two centuries ago to justify the British Enclosure Acts, whereby big landowning gentry seized the common lands shared by poorer people, falsely accusing the commoners of waste. The Enclosure of the Commons was the real tragedy, and continues in different forms to this day.

  2. Is this one of a series? I seem to remember dipping into a novel set in the same, or a very similar, world. The protagonist was the daughter of a headsman whose job was carrying out death sentences on people condemned for using magic.

  3. Richard, I agree. I also remember reading a book or novella about the same bramble effect when using magic. One of Modesitt’s non-Recluse books? C. S. Friedman? “Wall of Brambles” from MtG? The search is on…

  4. It looks like the first two sections of this book were published as separate novellas by Subterranean Press and the second two sections are new. I read the novellas and liked them, so I picked this up.

  5. Oh, bloody heck. Just when I decide to Stop Buying Books for awhile, somebody writes another one I want to read right now. Maybe just one more won’t hurt…

  6. This is a very interesting idea. I agree that the world-building is the honeymoon, too. I have trouble coming up with a way to express the world that isn’t encyclopedic, some sort of oral history, etc.

  7. I read ‘The Alchemist’ in a different anthology and it stayed with me for days because of the analogy to environmental issues. I’m really excited to see a couple more stories in that universe.

  8. Kaci’s right. I read “The Alchemist” six years ago, which had the same premise. Now I’m really looking forward to this book.

  9. I thought ‘the tragedy of the commons’ was that people cheated. Originally, a few poor people were allowed to pasture their animals on common land, as a form of charity. Then, a few people who were not poor decided to take advantage of the situation, & pretty soon, the common ground was cropped barren. It was this situation which was seized upon by the landed gentry as an excuse to eliminate the commons altogether. I think this is the sense used in the novel. Of course, the tendency of governments to hoover up anything that isn’t nailed down is also tragic, & was the subject of another recent Big Idea post.

  10. I’ve heard “the tragedy of the commons” much as Bodeen: if everyone is allowed to use the commons (woods, fish, grassy meadows), it’ll be ruined because everyone will graze/chop wood for themselves and the commons will be destroyed, whereas if you privatize it, you can count on careful maintenance. It’s very popular with some libertarians.
    James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State makes a good argument that the commons was never “take as much as you grab.” It was tightly controlled by custom and tradition, but that didn’t work well with a capitalist system so the commons had to go.

  11. The phrase “the tragedy of the commons” was coined in the 1830s, but was popularized in 1968 by Garrett Hardin in an article with that title. It argues that when there is a finite shared resource (particularly, an unregulated shared resource), additional exploitation of that resource directly benefits the individual person using the commons, while the costs are shared among all users, and the net effect is generally that a rational economic actor will always find it beneficial to expand use of a commons, until it is overused and crashes, depriving everyone of its benefits. See this Wikipedia article. It has been argued that many real situations do not match the conditions assumed by Hardin. I wrote a response to the Hardin article, criticizing it as mathematically naive, many many years ago, when i was in High School. It happened that my grandfather knew Hardin and sent him a copy of my paper. He was not very much impressed.

    In any case, it sounds as if the use of magic in this fantasy setting is indeed a classic tragedy of the commons. The classic solution is regulation and allocation, but that is not always feasible. A very interesting concept.

Comments are closed.